There’s no doubt that I went to Churchill for one thing, and one thing only: to see polar bears. But once I got my white bear fix, I discovered that this northern town is definitely more than just bears.
Culture & History
Many bear lovers are surprised when they learn about Churchill’s major role in the fur trade. It was here that Hudson Bay Company – the oldest company in the world – began operations in 1670. On a blustery day during my trip to Churchill, I visited the reconstructed remnants of a canon battery at Cape Merry built in 1747 to protect their fur trading post, the Prince of Wales Fort (which you can also visit during the summer months). I learned about the fight for control of the fur trade between the English and the French and how it fell without a single shot being fired.
You have to go here. Full stop. The Eskimo Museum is located off the main drag in an unassuming building. But this bright space is filled with 3,500 years worth of history and art. The walls are lined with cases of intricately carved ivory and soapstone pieces that tell the stories of the north along with artifacts from the Dorset and Thule cultures who are the ancestors of the modern Inuit.
I touched pelts and learned how a York boat was made in this exhibit space located in the train station. Seeing the artifacts from both the Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory – a fur depot 200 kilometres south of Churchill – made me realize how hard life in the fort undoubtedly was. But no matter how hard life was, they never sacrificed on fine china…!
Stop in at the many shops dotting the town’s main drag – Kelsey Boulevard. Pick up a sweatshirt or stuffed polar bear, or a jar of tundra berry jam made by the local greenhouse, Boreal Gardens. If your spending budget allows, I suggest taking home a beautiful soapstone carving or even a pair of handmade leather moccasins or mitts. I took home a print from a Manitoba artist, a book about polar bears for my kids, and some handmade inukshuk Christmas tree decorations.
Here’s the thing about these dogs – they love to run. Winter, summer, they don’t care –they just want to run! I had the chance to go for a ride during the summer, on a cart with wheels, but the winter ride is just as cool as the sled is hooked up to a team of dogs that take you for a ride through the boreal forest.
This is my one regret from my trip to see the bears – I had to leave (to come back to work, ugh – I mean, yay!) before the scheduled helicopter tour. How awesome would it be to see the transition of the landscape –the bay, the tundra, and the boreal forest – from above? And, as bonus, getting to see those massive bears looking a little bit smaller.
Polar Bear Slide
Inside the Town Complex – the recreation centre/school/hospital is a super fun polar bear slide. It’s a great place to come with kids (as I discovered when we went on a family vacation in Churchill), with its indoor playground, bowling alley, theatre, and pool.
Seeing the Sites
Don’t be fooled by the size of the town – there is no shortage of interesting sites to see. Like the shipwrecked MV Ithaca, stranded out in the bay since it went aground there in 1960. Or the crashed airplane, Miss Piggy. The C46 aircraft’s nickname likely came from the fact that locals believed it was overloaded with its cargo of snowmobiles and soft drinks – thankfully there were no fatalities. The takeaway here (in case the world’s largest land predator wasn’t enough): this can be a dangerous place.
The Inukshuk on the beach is a popular place for photographs, but is also a favourite spot for bears, which I love of course, but that doesn’t mean I want to run into one during a leisurely stroll on the beach. Manitoba Conservation officers quickly intervene when bears enter or approach the town. These bears are taken to the Polar Bear Jail – a holding cell where bears are kept until they can be transported north, back into the wild.
Science & Nature
Here’s a tip – if you want to see the aurora borealis, aka northern lights, when you’re in Churchill, don’t go to bed with earplugs in. Because then you won’t hear when someone knocks on your door to tell you the sky is alive with ribbons of green, white, blue or even red (what colour were the lights that night? I’ll never know…). While the best time to see the northern lights is actually later in the winter, it is possible to see them year-round. This beautiful light show is the result of the interaction of charged particles from the sun with atoms in the upper atmosphere. Science is cool. And beautiful.
There’s no denying that the bears are the main attraction, but don’t forget that lots of other animals call this place home: red fox, Arctic fox, ptarmigan, Arctic hare, and snowy owl included. Even grizzly bears have been known to wander over to polar bear town.
This education and research centre opens its doors to arctic researchers and scientists and you can also stay here, like I did last year, for a different take on a polar bear tour. The learning vacations here include lectures on relevant topics and guests even participate in some of the research studies. I learned about the building’s unique eco-friendly features along with tons of cool information on bears and the arctic environment (who knew studying snow could tell you so much?).
Next door is the now defunct rocket range. For more than 40 years, various agencies – including NASA – launched sounding rockets into the upper atmosphere for research purposes. More than 3,500 rockets were launched here.
Meet the locals
The locals are used to welcoming visitors, and they love to share their stories. From age-old legends to anecdotes from the former military base and close encounters with Churchill’s most famous residents, this place has lots of stories. Ask your guide, the front desk agent at your hotel, your dog musher, anyone – they’re all happy to spin some Churchill yarn.
Enjoy the flavours of the north – like arctic char or elk – at one of Churchill’s restaurants. I’m declaring a tie between the two best things I ate in town: the vegetarian Borealis Burger from the Tundra Inn Pub (I’m not a vegetarian, but this wildrice/black bean burger was really unique and very tasty) and the caramel Skor donut from Gypsy’s Bakery – to die for. The Tundra Inn Pub also hosts open mic night where locals and visitors come together for a jam session. And you can enjoy fine dining at the Seaport Hotel’s Reef Restaurant or a steaming latte complete with polar bear stencil from the Lazy Bear Café.
So there’s a quick rundown of what Churchill has to offer – beyond the bears. While your trip north is most certainly all about the bears, you’ll leave with a better understanding of the history, culture, and character of this arctic destination.
Besides the bears, what is your favourite thing about Churchill? Tell us the comments below!